Tony's

Tony's is just as serious about its pasta quality as it is about everything else. "All Pasta Made by Hand In House" proclaims the menu. The question is not whether to have pasta. The question is which pasta to have. Shall it be the pillow-like pansoti filled with squash and dabbed with sage essence? Perhaps the weather calls for tortelli stuffed with osso buco? Maybe the mood demands agnolotti alle noci, small pouches of beautiful taleggio cheese, each adorned with a single walnut half. Whatever the choice, it will prove more elegant and delectable than anyone thought possible.

Tiger Den

In the Dun Huang Plaza off Bellaire Boulevard near Beltway 8, big, flashy neon signs are the rule rather than the exception. In the midst of it all sits Houston's best ramen house, and it's almost as invisible as Platform 9 3/4 from the Harry Potter books. The name in sedate white lettering above the door is not nearly as obvious as the crowds of people waiting for a seat, even on a Tuesday night. Inside, the atmosphere is a bit reminiscent of a gritty nighttime scene in Blade Runner. Benches are crowded with diners clasping their ramen bowls. A touch of smoke fills the air, the result of pork belly, gizzards and chicken skin being grilled to crisp perfection in the kitchen. While the yakitoris, or skewered items, are mindless fun, the ramen broth is a meditation on flavors, whether it be the creamy tonkotsu that takes hours to prepare or the sultry, salty undertow of the garlic and black bean rendition. Tiger Den is too fun and deliberately casual for a printed sake list, but there are always a well-chosen handful of good selections available.

READERS' CHOICE: Ninja Ramen

Roegels Barbecue Co.
Chuck Cook Photography

After making barbecue for years under the Baker's Ribs franchise, Russell Roegels noticed that Houston barbecue was changing. He closely examined what up-and-comers like Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue in Austin were preaching, and attended Barbecue Camp at A&M. He returned to his Houston store, decided not to renew the franchise agreement and set out along with his wife, Misty, to make a better product. It's been worth the effort. Now, the longtime barbecue spot on South Voss attracts lines of patrons. They are there to snag slices of brisket encrusted with black pepper and salt, pork ribs with sweet-salty balance, crisp coleslaw, mayonnaise-dill potato salad and some stellar bourbon banana pudding for dessert.

Il Mascalzone
Troy Fields

Fake risottos abound in Houston. So many restaurants put something on the menu called "risotto" that ends up being just rice cooked in broth with some cream thrown in. Good risotto starts with using the correct rice, like short-grained Arborio from Italy. Mascalzone, thankfully, understands this. As a result, its risotto is everything it should be. It's creamy. The grains are tender and a spoonful holds its shape as it should. Mascalzone offers its risotto with four different additions: vegetables, veal, mushrooms or seafood. Any risotto lover should be able to find a perfect match.

Caracol
Photo by Troy Fields

Mexico is not known for its wine (yet), so what's a sommelier at a seafood-driven Mexican restaurant to do? Make new rules. Beverage director and sommelier Sean Beck went through the same challenge when developing the wine list at Hugo's and brought that experience to bear when it was time to pair wine with Caracol's coastal cuisine. The selections are often surprising and yet make complete sense. French Champagne is terrific with briny oysters, while dry Australian Riesling offsets clams perfectly. Italian Barolo matches grilled prime rib eye and garlicky mushrooms. At Caracol, even the most jaded wine connoisseur can find new adventures, like Gerovassiliou Malagousia from Greece with Caracol's signature wood roasted oysters.

Weights + Measures
Photo by Troy Fields

After spending years as the bread purveyor of choice for Houston's finer restaurants and retailers, baker Heath Wendell finally has a retail bake shop. In the mornings, the glass case full of glazed, filled and iced doughnuts will soften the heart of even the most hardcore carbohydrate hater. A cup of coffee or an espresso drink, made with Amaya Roasting Company's beans, is the perfect morning companion for these sweet treats.

It was cause for rejoicing to hear that one of Houston's best-loved pizza joints was opening a second location on the border of Montrose and Midtown. Black-tiled, fire-breathing, twin monsters of pizza ovens stand guard in the kitchen. One crispy-edged Neapolitan pizza after another is rescued from these ovens on busy nights. The topping combinations are unique and high quality. Examples include the Fino, with smoky speck, mozzarella and plenty of garlic, and the Campania, with red sauce, roasted crimini mushrooms, artichokes, cotto (cooked) ham, black olives, basil and mozzarella. Pizaro's is BYOB and glassware is readily available. Pizza this fine demands good wine to go with it.

READERS' CHOICE: Star Pizza

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